Sunday, April 23, 2017

Accelerating Change: How to Survive and Thrive

Review by Bill Doughty

The Navy operates in an age of acceleration in a "post-post-Cold War" era. Scientists show we're moving headlong from the Holocene into the Anthropocene, where human population growth, globalization, climate change, and loss or biodiversity are forcing change at exponential speed, and where the United States, China and Russia continue to compete for influence and resources. Meanwhile, Islamist extremists like ISIS coalesce and threaten thanks to social networking and cell phone technology.

That's some of the scene Thomas L. Friedman sets in his latest, "Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Friedman is author of "From Beirut to Jerusalem," "The World Is Flat," "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," and "That Used to Be Us."
Globalization affects the interconnected economies of the world. Carbon (now above 400 ppm) causes changes in the atmosphere and biosphere. And Moore's law explains how technology grows exponentially. Combined, these forces bring us to either a precipice or a new beginning – a chance for the United States and the world to "reimagine how we stabilize geopolitics," according to Friedman.
Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist/author Thomas Friedman speaks to a packed auditorium
 in Ingersoll Hall, Naval Postgraduate School, June 24, 2016. (Photo by Michael Ehrlich)
"It's important to remember that America is such an important player on the world stage that even small shifts in how we project power can have decisive impacts. And it's this combination of shrinking American power in one part of the world plus the reshaping of the world more broadly by the accelerations in the Market, Mother Nature, and Moore's law that defines the era we are in today, which I call the post-post-Cold War world. It is a world characterized by some very old and some very new forms of geopolitical competition all swirling together at the same time. That is, the traditional great-power competition, primarily among the United States, Russia, and China, is back again (if it really went away) as strong as ever, with the three major powers again jockeying over spheres of influence, along golden-oldie fault lines such as the NATO-Russia frontier or the South China Sea. This competition is propelled by history, geography, and the traditional imperatives of great-power geopolitics, and is reinforced today by the rise of nationalism in Russia and China. It's contours will be determined by the balance of power between these three big nation-states."
As evidence of exponential acceleration of change, Friedman presents the work of Will Steffen published in Anthropocene Review, March 2, 2015, that concludes, "We are now in a no-analogue world." The danger is in how we've (1) breached, (2) almost breached or (3) are about to breach "nine key planetary boundaries": climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, geochemical flows, ocean acidification, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosol loading, introduction of novel entities, and stratospheric ozone layer.

The latter boundary – ensuring the ozone layer is appropriately thick enough to reduce the threat of harmful UV radiation – is a success story and a sign of hope, according to Friedman. "After scientists discovered an ever-widening ozone hole caused by man-made chemicals – chlorofluorocarbons – the world got together and implemented the Montreal Protocol in 1989, banning CFCs, and, as a result, the ozone layer remains safely inside its planetary boundary of losses not greater than 5 percent from preindustrial levels."

Both Mother Nature and humankind can innovate and be highly adaptive, Friedman contends. Nature evolves through natural selection. Humans have the capability to learn, control and adapt their behavior if they have the knowledge, wisdom and will.

In growing acceleration within societies, we see examples of rapid changes. Typewriters are antiques (to be collected by Tom Hanks). Cassette players are now used as a quaint plot devices in movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy." The Confederate Flag came down in South Carolina after the shooting in Charleston in 2015. In recent years the U.S. military changed its attitude about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people and their rights to equality. The future will reward resiliency and entrepreneurial adaptability.

Those who will survive and thrive during and after the great acceleration are those who embrace innovation, science and education, based on a bedrock of truth and trust, says Friedman. The future belongs to lifelong learners willing to constantly better themselves and unwilling to accept the average or mediocre.
"We have to make our newfound power of one, the power of machines, the power of many, and the power of flows our friends – and our tools to create abundance within the planetary boundaries – not just our enemies. But organizing ourselves to use them that way will require a level of will, of stewardship, and of collective action the likes of which we have never seen humanity display as a whole. Every day there are new breakthroughs in solar energy, wind power, batteries, and energy efficiency that hold out the hope that we can have clean energy at a scale and price that billions can afford – provided we have the will to put a price on carbon so these technologies can rapidly scale and move down the cost-volume curve. As environmentalists have often noted, we have been great at rising to the occasion after big geopolitical upheavals – after Hitler invaded his neighbors, after Pearl Harbor, after 9/11. But this is the first time in human history that we have to act on a threat we have collectively made to ourselves, to act on it at scale, to act before the full consequences are felt, and to act on behalf of a generation that has not yet been born – and to do it before all the planetary boundaries have been breached."
While Friedman is optimistic, he's also realistic. Rapid acceleration and globalization is a double-edged sword.
"Globalization has always been everything and its opposite – it can be incredibly democratizing and it can concentrate incredible power in giant multinationals; it can be incredibly particularizing – the smallest voices can now be heard everywhere – and incredibly homogenizing, with big brands now able to swamp everything anywhere. It can be incredibly empowering, as small companies and individuals can start global companies overnight, with global customers, suppliers, and collaborators, and it can be incredibly disempowering – big forces can come out of nowhere and crush your business when you never even thought they were in your business. Which way it tips depends on the values and tolls that we bring to these flows."
Recent headlines and scandals about online misbehavior show the challenge to leaders in the accelerating world Friedman describes.
"It turns out that social networks, cheap cell phones, and messaging apps are really good at both enabling and impeding collective action. They enable people to get connected horizontally much more easily and efficiently but they also enable individuals at the bottom to pull down those at the top more easily and efficiently – whether they are allies or enemies. Military strategists will tell you that the network is the most empowered organizational form in this period of technological change; classical hierarchies do not optimize in the flat world, but the network does. Networks undermine command-and-control systems – no matter who is on top – while strengthening the voices of whoever is on the bottom to talk back. Social media is good for collective sharing, but not always so great for collective building; good for collective destruction, but maybe not so good for collective construction; fantastic for generating a flash mob, but not so good at generating a flash consensus on a party platform or a constitution."
A U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowler refuels in Operation Inherent Resolve mission March 20, 2017,
an extended fight against ISIS. (Photo by Senior Airman Joshua A. Hoskins)
Speaking of double-edged swords and "collective destruction"... Misplaced values in the name of what some call a deranged interpretation of Islam and the Koran is at the heart of radical extremists like Daesh/ISIS/ISIL and similar groups that form a "diffuse movement," one that can best be defeated by other Muslims standing up to the death cults, Friedman shows. Till then, the rise of the terrorists has created a "new balance of power."
"During the Cold War, if you wanted to assess the global balance of power you would likely look at the annual survey "The Military Balance," published by the London-based International institute for Strategic Studies, and self-described as the most 'trusted military data on 171 countries: size of armed forces, defense budgets, equipment.' That book would tell you the relative strengths of their armies, navies, and air forces (their hard power), and their 'soft power': the relative strengths of their economies, their societal appeal, and the degree of entrepreneurship in their culture. And if you added up all those numbers, you would have a rough measure of the balance of power between different nation-states. Not anymore. Assessing today's balance of power requires a much wider lens."
Trees grow tall in suburbs in Minnesota, anchoring Friedman's optimism.
Getting to that wider lens requires us to not act like the proverbial frog being slowly boiled and lulled into unconsciousness (put a frog in boiling water and it jumps out; put it in cool water and gradually raise the temperature, and the frog might not act till it's too late). "We are hardwired to consider nature limitless because for so many years nature seemed so limitless – and we were so relatively few and so relatively light a force upon it; how could it be that we cannot devour as much as we want." 

Friedman tells a great story about his encounter with a parking lot attendant (and blogger) at the beginning of "Thank You for Being Late." Throughout the  book he enlightens us with topics as diverse as in Syria, artificial intelligence, Madagascar, Hadoop, generative design, and Brandi Carlile, among dozens of others.

He concludes this book with a personal and heartfelt story about his "anchoring" roots, symbolized in the trees he remembers in his hometown of St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
"Those trees and I had both grown up and out from the same topsoil, and the most important personal, political, and philosophical lesson I took from the journey that is this book is that the more the world demands that we branch out, the more we each need to be anchored in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities. We must be enriched by that topsoil, and we must enrich it in turn."
During a recent visit to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, geobiologist and author Hope Jaren ("Lab Girl") invited us to think about how plants – seeds, roots, trees, etc. – are depicted and reflected in books. Of course that came to mind in reading the last few pages of Friedman's latest must-read. Highly recommended.

For more on how the Navy must operate in a rapidly accelerating world, branch out and read the CNO's "Design for Maritime Superiority."

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